A person passes just days after losing their partner, crippled by the loss of the love of their life. Or an elderly couple simultaneously take their last breaths as they're holding hands. These movie scenes are common, and they're heartbreakers — literally.
While these depictions of dying from a broken heart may be the Hollywood version (sometimes complete with a flock of birds flying away as the characters die), broken heart syndrome is a real medical condition.
Sometimes called the widowhood effect or stress-induced myopathy, broken heart syndrome occurs when your body gets a surge of stress hormones. This can happen after an emotionally stressful event, such as a death, breakup, or even a good shock, like winning the lottery.
Broken heart syndrome causes part of your heart to get bigger temporarily and not pump as well as it should. As a result, your heart needs to work harder to get your body the blood it needs. Though it's not usually fatal, it can be painful and cause temporary heart muscle failure.
The good news is that broken heart syndrome is often treatable. Still, it's important to know what the signs are so you can get your heart the help it needs.
Here's a look at broken heart syndrome and what you should know about it.
Broken Heart Syndrome: The Physical Manifestation of Grief
Paul Alfieri, MD
Chester County Hospital Cardiologist
Stress has long since been connected to heart problems. It can raise your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and it can also encourage behaviors such as smoking and overeating.
When you experience a significant amount of stress at once, however, its complications can be less subtle.
"With broken heart syndrome, the surge of stress-related hormones can cause sudden, intense chest pain. As a result, it can feel as if your heart is actually breaking," says Chester County Hospital Cardiologist Dr. Paul Alfieri, MD.
Broken heart syndrome can occur even if you're completely healthy otherwise and have no history of heart problems. Symptoms include:
Because of the strain put on your heart, broken heart syndrome can cause heart muscle failure. In its most severe form, broken heart syndrome can lead to cardiogenic shock, which is when your suddenly-weakened heart can't pump enough blood to your body. Though it's rare, this is the most common cause of death from broken heart syndrome.
If you're experiencing any or multiple heart-related symptoms, call 9-1-1 right away. Whether it's broken heart syndrome or its more dangerous relative — the heart attack — it's critical that you get diagnosed and treated as soon as possible.
Broken Heart Syndrome or a Heart Attack?
"Broken heart syndrome is not a heart attack — but it does commonly get mistaken for one. In addition to chest pain and shortness of breath similar to a heart attack, tests sometimes show changes in heart rhythm and blood substances that often point to a heart attack," adds Dr. Alfieri.
Broken heart syndrome occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. A heart attack is the result of a buildup of a substance called plaque. The buildup happens over time and blocks blood flow to the heart.
Broken heart syndrome is also different from a heart attack because it has:
- Different results from an electrocardiogram (EKG) — a test that records the electrical activity of the heart
- No signs of heart damage from blood tests
- No signs of any blockages in the arteries that lead to the heart
- Signs of ballooning and unusual movement of the lower left heart chamber
- A quicker recovery time (a few days to a few weeks compared to a month or more for recovery from a heart attack)
Diagnosing and Treating Broken Heart Syndrome
People with broken heart syndrome usually have a quick, complete recovery. However, it's still important to diagnose and treat to avoid potential damage and ease symptoms.
To diagnose broken heart syndrome, your healthcare provider may do a diagnostic test, such as coronary angiography. During this test, your provider uses special X-rays and dye to look inside the arteries that lead to your heart.
Other tests may include:
- Blood tests
- Electrocardiogram (EKG) — a test that measures the electrical activity of your heart
- Echocardiogram — a test that uses sound waves to take pictures of your heart
- Cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
Treatment for broken heart syndrome usually involves medications that are typical for treating heart failure. The goal is to improve how your heart contracts and pumps blood using medications such as ACE inhibitors or beta-blockers.
In most cases, people who experience broken heart syndrome recover within just a few weeks.
There's no way to completely prevent stress in your life — and a stressful event doesn't necessarily mean you’ll experience broken heart syndrome.
The key is to pay attention to your body. If you believe something may be wrong, see your healthcare provider. Your heart is one of the most important organs in your body, and it does a lot to take care of you. In times of severe stress, however, it might need a little extra attention and care.
Do you have questions about broken heart syndrome? Call 610-738-2300 to find a cardiologist on the medical staff at Chester County Hospital. New patient appointments and follow up consultations are available via telemedicine. In-person consultations are provided in a safe environment.
Related Information from Chester County Hospital: